Derna, Libya, on September 13, 2023, two days after the dams burst (OSV News photo/Marwan Alfaituri, social media via Reuters)

“There are bodies everywhere,” said one CNN correspondent. Another described how, “looking into the sea, what we see is people’s lives…. Door frames, windows, furniture, clothes, cars.” The reports came from Derna, in eastern Libya, where torrential rains led to the collapse of two dams on September 11 and washed a quarter of the city out into the Mediterranean Sea. The Libyan Red Crescent initially estimated the death toll could surpass ten thousand. Tens of thousands more were missing, and at least thirty thousand were displaced.

Libya was not the only country battered by the storm; Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey also suffered significant damages to land and property, and more than a dozen deaths. But Libya bore the highest toll by far. Derna’s devastation can be blamed in part on Libya’s civil and governmental dysfunction. Following the 2011 fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the country has struggled to build and maintain a unified democracy. Two competing governments currently lay claim to the country: the internationally recognized Government of National Unity in Tripoli and the Government of National Stability, based in the east. Persistent conflict between the two has left Libya unable to to prioritize the safety and health of its people. Both dams were overdue for maintenance, calls to repair them were long ignored, and engineers had warned of potential catastrophe. When disaster struck, residents received mixed messages about whether to flee or to remain indoors. Furious and distraught citizens have begun staging demonstrations in Derna, blaming authorities for their negligence and even setting fire to the mayor’s house.

The United States, along with other Western countries, bears an additional, broader responsibility.

International relief has been slow to arrive, as washed-out bridges and roads have made it difficult to access the city. The White House is working with the United Nations to provide aid, but this is not enough. Writing in the New York Times, Ethan Chorin argues that the United States has a specific responsibility to help Libya—to “re-engage directly with the Libyan people”—given its role in overthrowing Qaddafi and its subsequent retreat from the nation. But the United States, along with other Western countries, bears an additional, broader responsibility. Stephanie Williams, the former special advisor on Libya to the UN Secretary General, described the Derna disaster as “a climate catastrophe exacerbated by misgovernance.” Climate change, while not specifically the cause of every storm, flood, or drought, undeniably contributes to the increased intensity and frequency of these phenomena. No part of the world is completely impervious, but Africa—itself responsible for only 4 percent of global emissions—experiences some of the worst consequences of these natural disasters.

A major success at last year’s COP27 climate conference was the creation of a loss-and-damage fund, which historically high-emitting countries would use to reimburse poorer countries heavily affected by climate change. But how that fund will work has yet to be determined. (Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry announced this summer that “under no circumstances” would the United States provide climate reparations.) Leading up to this year’s COP28, African nations held the first Africa Climate Summit, writing a declaration they hope to use as the basis of their negotiations. It calls for global taxes on shipping, aviation, and fossil-fuel trading. Whatever they are called—reparations, taxes, “loss-and-damage reimbursements”—the United States cannot in good conscience ignore them. Given the violent conflict and corruption that plague many of the affected nations, it will be challenging to effectively fund and implement adaptation programs to protect citizens from disasters like the one in Derna. But that challenge does not exempt us from our obligations, to Libya or to the rest of Africa.  

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the October 2023 issue: View Contents
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